On teaching...

Ok, I always have thoughts on teaching.  I do it every day (mostly).  This week, I've gone through what is probably my 10th round of state proficiency tests.  I've never worked in a school where proficiencies come easy to the students.  There are a dozen schools in town where 80% of students or more are likely to pass/graduate/etc.  The graduation rate at Biltmore is less than 30%.  For every hundred kids that sit in my classroom, only 30 of them will graduate.  Another hand full will get a GED.  A few will go to college, a few more will join the military.  A few will pass through our doors and realize that they have NO INTEREST in ever coming back.  Some will stay for years.

I think this has been one of the most disheartening weeks in my career, but at the same time one of the most hopeful.  For the past month, I've been teaching my students to pass the writing proficiency test.  Realistically, it's not hard to pass.  Follow the formula, write in complete sentences, use reasonable arguments.  This year, I created a test class in which I went over the step-by-step of writing proficiency - not writing, mind you, but this actual test and how to pass it - every single day for 47 days (from the first day of school to the day of the test) in addition to regular English classes.  That works out to over 35 hours of direct instruction.  Most students can pull it off with 10 hours or less of review and "helpful hints".  My students had almost four times what would be considered standard.  

Many of them still won't pass.  Not for lack of trying, not for lack of instruction.  They just don't have the skills.  They have missed years of education, fallen through the cracks countless times, been given social promotions every year.  And now, as high school seniors, they've missed such large portions of the educational continuum that they cannot function at the appropriate level.  And it breaks my heart.  

I had so many students come to me today (after yesterday's test), so proud of themselves because they felt they'd done a phenomenal job on the exam and were sure to pass.  I didn't have the heart to tell a single one of them that I'd spent a couple hours reading ever single test and discovered that while they had tried, to that count there was no question, many wouldn't pass.  I was able to pick out half a dozen that would pass without question, about ten more that hadn't even tried.  The rest (another 30) fell somewhere in the middle.  Some of those would make it if their papers were read kindly.  I have one student that wrote a great essay - probably the best he's ever written - but the thesis is that "to be a good citizen, you have to be legit".  Some readers will be thrown off by the word, but if they can get past it, they'll see a kid that has realized that a genuine life is much more valuable than one lived fraudulently.  I want him to pass so badly, but I'm afraid he won't.  

Another student wrote similarly, about living within the law.  He used his mom as an example.  She was an immigrant but now works, pays taxes, etc. so she can be a good citizen.  He came to me today really impressed with himself because he'd remembered my carinal rule:  "If you don't have anything good to say, lie.  No one will ever know."  He told me, he was stuck for half an hour before he remembered that & came up with a good story.  He too, will likely not pass.  As an illegal immigrant with spotty education, he did his very best... which may never be enough.  

Through all of this, I thought of David Garcia.  David was never my student, but was Mike's student for four full years of high school.  During his senior year at Desert Pines, he was struggling to pass his writing test.  He'd taken it six times, to no avail.  I remember him coming into my classroom so frustrated because he just couldn't do it.  I would give my room full of Freshmen some random assignments to keep them quiet and sit at my desk with David so he could pass his test.  Ironically, I could have been suspended for it; I didn't care.

David did pass his test, and he did graduate.  Now, he's in Afghanistan.  I worry about him every day and think about him often.  I had one Biltmore student come back last spring telling me he'd joined the Air Force.  I was shocked to see him.  We'd butted heads all the time.  He was smart, but lazy.  I tried to push him into using some of the brain cells.  He hated me for it & left my class angry daily.  He left with an escort more than once.  He came back to hug me an apologize.  He told me that as much as he hated my class, it forced him to re-evaluate some of his choices - I was the first person that ever told him "Stop acting stupid.  You're smart and I need you to act like it."  He said that no one else had ever told him he was smart.  I don't think I'd ever been so humbled.  

I've only been teaching 6 years, so I haven't reached that point yet where there are a lot of students coming back to tell me they've succeeded.  A few, but not many.  I've had two tell me they've gone into teaching because they loved my class.  I get occasional e-mails.  Nothing makes me happier than hearing a student has found success.  I only wish there were more of them... 


  1. That post brought me to tears. I always loved it when you would sit and help me with things that I did not understand even though we were just in our 8th grade year (or was it freshman year)well that doesn't matter it is neither here nor there I will never forget what you had helped me understand and just want you to know you really do make an impact no matter how big or small. You truly are the deff. of a great teacher in my book.

  2. As I'm not sure who the anonymous commenter is, I can only guess it's one of the girls I taught at Cheyenne... I never taught middle school, I avoid freshmen if at all possible. :)

    Nonetheless, thank you for the kind words. Knowing that I helped someone, if only a bit, is worth more to me than nearly anything else.



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